Review of “The Gatekeepers-How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency”

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every PresidencyThe Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author Chris Whipple has done a terrific job of examining the modern history of the Chief of Staff to the President position, and how that job plays such an important role in the ultimate success, or failure, of the Presidency. Chiefs of Staff are indeed vitally important to the success of an enterprise, especially the Presidency. The author believes that, and shows us how ineffective utilization of this position hurt several Administrations, and how effective Chiefs had an outsized influence on the success of many Presidencies. 


I just finished the John Dean book “The Nixon Defense” and the person that Whipple describes as the father of the modern day White House staff system was a major figure in that book as well. H.R. (Bob) Haldeman had been with Richard Nixon for many years, and when Nixon won the Presidency in 1968 he turned to Haldeman to organize the Nixon staff, and to become Nixon’s “son of a bitch.” Nixon also described Haldeman as his “lord high executioner,” but Haldeman was so much more than a tough guy. He was highly organized, and indeed created a staff system emulated, in some fashion, by every following Administration. Whipple describes how Haldeman was seen by a future Chief of Staff.

“Holed up at their transition headquarters , Haldeman read everything he could on how to organize the White House. He devised what he called a staff system, a model and template of White House governance that almost every subsequent administration would follow. 
One person was paying particularly close attention: Donald Rumsfeld, the young, ambitious head of Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity. ‘There has to be a staff system, and Haldeman was the person who designed it,’ Rumsfeld would tell me years later. Haldeman, he notes, adopted the lessons Nixon learned from Ike: ‘It came really out of Eisenhower who had a military background, understanding the importance of communicating out to important elements-logistics and all the different elements in the military.’”

Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency Chris Whipple page 22-23

H.R. Haldeman was eventually convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal, and his public life was destroyed by his actions. There has been plenty written about Watergate, but Whipple brings us some of the interactions between a COS and his President when the Chief has an obligation to steer a President away from illegality. Haldeman, without question, slow walked or ignored many crazy orders from Nixon, but in the end he simply did not do that with sufficient vigor to keep Nixon, and his Administration out of trouble. Despite those shortcomings, in my view, Haldeman is indeed the “father” of the modern staff system, and a Chief that, despite his notable failures, was highly effective in many ways.

The book has a bias towards a strong chief of staff system, but that bias tends to be borne out by the history. Chapter two, on the Ford presidency, is one of the best in the book, and tends to confirm the bias towards a strong COS. Ford inherited the last Nixon Chief, Al Haig, who was quickly marginalized by the new Ford team. Ford adopted the “spokes of the wheel” management system, which had the major players reporting directly to him, going around Haig, and leaving him with an un-manageable inbox. Whipple shows the fast descent of the Ford presidency under this system, with the Nixon pardon and staff chaos driving his approval rating way down, and contributing to a perception of Ford as a bumbler that he never completely shook. When the President realized his trouble, and that the “spokes of the wheel” system was just not working he turned to Donald Rumsfeld, then Ambassador to NATO, who was an advocate for a strong chief. Rumsfeld gave Ford his views:

“”You don’t have the time to run the White House yourself,’ he told the President. ‘I know you don’t want a Haldeman-type Chief of Staff, but someone has to fill that role, and unless I can have that authority, I won’t be able to serve you effectively,’ In a memo afterward, Rumsfeld warned Ford that governing without a chief ‘is your quickest way to lose your credibility because even though you are honest the fact that you don’t know what you are doing misleads people and once you lose your credibility , you can’t govern, so there has to be order, and…I would consider it my job to see that there was order.’”

Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency Chris Whipple page 53

The President evaluated, and concluded that the Rumsfeld approach was correct. Whipple quotes President Ford:

“As Ford wrote later: ‘I concluded he was right. The ‘spokes of the wheel’ approach wan’t working. Without a strong decision-maker who could help me set my priorities, I’d be hounded to death by gnats and fleas. I wouldn’t have time to reflect on basic strategy or the fundamental direction of my presidency.’”

Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency Chris Whipple page 54

Not only do we get some very interesting history on this vital position, but we can revisit some of the outsized personalities that have impacted the last 50 years of U.S. history, often in different roles. Donald Rumsfeld did indeed take the position of Chief in the Ford Administration, and was succeeded in that role by Dick Cheney, a Rumsfeld protege and deputy. The description of Cheney is at odds with the person he would become as Vice President, as the author gives us a Cheney with a sense of humor, a much lighter touch, and a genial relationship with the media. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, appears to have changed little over the years. One of my favorite quotes from the book comes at the end of the Ford Administration, when outgoing Chief of Staff Cheney left a note for incoming Carter Administration honcho Hamilton Jordan. It said:

“Dear Hamilton,

Beware the spokes of the wheel.

Regards,

Dick Cheney”

Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency Chris Whipple page 75

The author takes us through the years, with the failure of the Jimmy Carter staff system and the weakness of Hamilton Jordan as a staff person, notably highlighted, supporting the central theme of the book.

Another outsized personality that served in the role of Chief was Jim Baker, named by President Reagan as his first Chief. Reagan was willing to bring on board, in a central role, a man who had run the campaign of his main Republican opponent, George H.W. Bush. Whipple gives very high marks to Baker, and had access to Baker, who gave him some really outstanding insights on the Reagan presidency, and on the job itself. Baker, by any standard, is first rate, and his departure as Chief was not a good thing for the Reagan presidency. The ascendancy to that job of Donald Regan, in a job swap with Baker, proved to be disastrous for President Reagan. Highlighting the notable failures of Regan showed that a “strong” chief system could be as disastrous as the “spokes of the wheel” system. Iran-Contra happened on Regan’s watch, and when President Reagan had finally had enough he brought on as Chief another major name, Howard Baker Jr. Although Baker did not distinguish himself greatly his Deputy, Ken Duberstein did.

When George H.W. Bush succeeded President Reagan he named former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu as his first Chief. James Baker did express some reservations in the book about Governor Sununu, and the strong chief system took a hit under Sununu. Whipple scores Sununu for arrogance, not taking advice from prior chiefs, and breaking a lot of china in the room when he did not have to. Even Dick Cheney piled on: 



“But Dick Cheney says his advice for Sununu fell on deaf ears. ‘Sununu comes over to my office and as I was talking, he sat back, looked at the ceiling, and twirled his thumbs,’ Cheney says. ‘He wasn’t the least bit interested. I think somebody told him he should do it.’”

Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency Chris Whipple page 165

Sununu always receives high marks for raw intelligence, and of that there can be no doubt. His eventual problem was not his ability to grasp issues but his “domineering” attitude, and the alienation of other staff, and of vital congressional constituencies. Jim Baker highlighted the problem of having a “principal” in the job of Chief. (Don Regan was a Wall Street CEO)

“…but Sununu’s fundamental problem was his sense of entitlement. Jim Baker’s rule-that principals rarely succeeded in the job-had proved true again. ‘The people who don’t succeed as White House chief of staff are people who like the chief part of the job and not the staff part of the job,’ says Baker. ‘You’ve got to remember that you’re staff even though you are powerful.’”

Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency Chris Whipple page 179

After a failed successor to Sununu, Samuel Skinner, President Bush 41 brought back James Baker as Chief of Staff, but it was not enough to prevent the loss to Bill Clinton.

The Clinton presidency brought staff chaos that was in many ways a function of the personality of the President himself. Two notable Chiefs of the Clinton presidency were Leon Panetta, and John Podesta. Both brought some discipline to a Presidency that badly needed it. When Panetta took over George Stephanopoulos gave him a copy of the book “The Haldeman Diaries” with a bookmark on the page where Nixon described Haldeman as his “lord high executioner.” The point was that Clinton needed a strong chief that could bring some order and discipline. The troubles, and successes of the Clinton presidency are well known, and both Panetta and Podesta became, and remain, outsized Washington figures.

The George W. Bush presidency, and the role of Andy Card as chief to Bush 43, is gone over in great detail. The dynamic is all the more interesting by the return of two former chiefs in different roles, Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, and Dick Cheney as Vice President. The disaster of Iraq, and some of the other major issues, are covered, with the advantage of having the principals all willing to talk, and take some pretty hard shots at each other. The dysfunction, in some respects, is laid at the feet of Card, but it really stemmed from Cheney and Rumsfeld, who did their best to circumvent the Chief of Staff system, and were largely successful in that effort. Cheney being forced to deliver the news that the President was firing Rumsfeld came after Card left, and was a function, in part, of the new Chief Josh Bolten recognizing that Rumsfeld was a liability to President Bush. A terrific chapter in the book.

The author does indeed get to the Obama presidency, and gives us some good insight from his first Chief, Rahm Emanuel, the current Mayor of Chicago. Rahm is a hard charger and possessed of truly extraordinary political instincts. Rahm’s style is well known, but his personality was not that of prior hard chargers who failed at the job. He knew when to hold them, and he knew when to fold them. The failure of Rahm’s successor, William Daley, is covered, with some good lessons learned.

The author gives us a very quick view of the first Trump chief Reince Priebus, who truly did fail at the job. The successor, John Kelly, is covered also, in a critical way. I do believe that Kelly understands the discipline that is needed for the job, but that style is just not suitable for Trump. Kelly’s position, that he was not brought in to “control Trump,” is criticized, correctly in my view, but must be mitigated against his true freedom of conversation while in the job. I would like to hear his perspective after he leaves the position, which will likely be shortly.

I give the book the highest rating, as it is both fascinating, and instructive, at the same time. The author has done a superb job.

View all my reviews

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